Major Leaguers Behaving Like Children

Before the season, the San Francisco Giants were expected to be bad, and the Milwaukee Brewers were expected to compete for a playoff spot. So far this year, the Giants are 30-39 with a -82 run differential, last in the NL West. The Brewers are 40-31 and first in the NL Central. Both teams have been more or less what we thought they were. With that in mind, you probably didn’t have much reason to watch Friday night’s Brewers-Giants clash. If you did watch it, however, you caught a singularly bizarre series of plays that highlighted the absurdity and joy of baseball.

In the bottom of the seventh with one runner aboard, the Brewers called on Alex Claudio to keep the Giants off the board. Down 3-2, Milwaukee couldn’t afford to let the Giants pad their lead any further, and the lineup set up perfectly for Claudio, a side-arming lefty with extreme career platoon splits. With Kevin Pillar standing on first, the Giants had four lefties in a row due up, and Claudio is on the Brewers more or less solely to get lefties out.

With Alex Claudio on the mound, there’s a certain minimum amount of weirdness involved in every pitch. His pre-pitch routine is hypnotizing — a few torso-and-arm shakes, an uncontrollable toe tap, and finally a corkscrewing, impossibly angled sidearm release. He looks like a kid impatiently sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room, right up until he explodes into a tremendously athletic delivery. Here, watch him throw an 84-mph sinker past Steven Duggar for the first out:

As much fun as it is to watch Claudio pitch, it would be hard to call this inning fun if he did his job and set down the three lefties in order. The Duggar at-bat made it look like that was a possibility. Even if 84-mph sinkers that strike out major league batters are fun, there’s a limit to how much fun an inning can be to watch if nothing happens. Fortunately, things were about to get weird.

Mike Yastrzemski was the next man up, and he was surely unhappy with his assignment. An undersized, 28-year-old career minor leaguer who the Orioles traded to the Giants this March to clear a 40-man roster spot, Yastrzemski isn’t exactly an accomplished hitter, and here he was facing a pitcher seemingly put on this earth to retire left-handed batters. The first pitch led to a tremendously awkward swing and a foul ball:

If you were worried about another uneventful strikeout, however, you needn’t have been, because the game took a very Little League turn. I’m not talking good Little League baseball, either. I’m talking about your local team, replete with kids playing because their parents force them to and right fielders who pick dandelions instead of watching the ball.

One of the benefits of being a left-handed pitcher is a smooth pickoff move, and Claudio broke out a nice one on Pillar:

At this point, though, things went haywire. You might expect, after that move, to see Pillar slide back into first, either just before or just after a tag. Instead, he took off for second. Even though it rarely works, the steal-on-your-pickoff-throw move is objectively really fun to watch. Yes, it usually results in the runner being out by five or 10 feet at second, but it’s a lot more exciting than a dive back into first. Jesus Aguilar heightened the tension by bobbling the ball, setting up a close play at the bag, and well, I’ll just show you what happened:

Maybe you’ve knocked a base off of its moorings (probably not, but maybe!), but you’ve almost definitely never knocked a major league base off of its moorings. They’re secured with a giant stanchion, designed for large men to slam into them at high speeds without budging. Pillar had to hit it exactly flush, at a full sprint, and it still probably shouldn’t have happened. It did though, and both Pillar and Orlando Arcia, who was covering second on the play, had absolutely no idea what to do.

Pillar suddenly realized there was no base under him, and looked to the umpire in frustration after briefly considering diving after the base. Having missed the initial tag, Arcia looked back to see if Pillar had overslid the bag, and saw chaos. No bag, just Pillar sitting down looking at the umpire indignantly. He did what you’d probably do in that situation — he went and applied a tag, just in case:

Most of the time, baseball players have practiced what they’re doing on the field thousands upon thousands of times before. The motions are automatic, the correct decision intuited rather than thought about. Save a little time thinking, and you can do everything faster, smoother, more elegantly. But when something happens that there’s no precedent for, you can see the gears turning. Just for a second, one brief instant, Pillar and Arcia weren’t world-class athletes who have spent their whole lives honing their craft. They were kids in the dirt, appealing to authority to see it their way:

Pillar knows he’s safe — he hit the base before the tag got there, after all, and he didn’t overslide. It’s only fair. Arcia knows Pillar is out — he applied a tag when Pillar wasn’t on the base, after all. That’s a rule of baseball! They’re both indignant, both pleading with the umpire to rule in their favor.

Sadly for my appreciation of chaos, the rule in this case is pretty straightforward, and the umpire applied it correctly right away:

Rule 5.09(b)(4) APPROVED RULING: (A) If the impact of a runner breaks a base loose from its position, no play can be made on that runner at that base if he had reached the base safely.

Still, there was more silliness to be had. The base was just sitting there, and it had to be put back in the ground before play could resume. Pillar was around, and that was his base, after all. He was the man for the job. The only problem was, that job wasn’t quite as easy as he thought it would be:

Again, Kevin Pillar is a world-class athlete. He’s preternaturally coordinated, a physical marvel. Here, though, he looks like me trying to fold a fitted sheet. How does it fit? Should he have to grab something in the base to attach it? Is it pull up, then push down? Maybe he needs to twist. Wait, is there still dirt in the hole? Maybe it’s time to check again. Where’s a fly ball in the gap to chase down or a pitch to hammer for a double when you need one? Those are things he could look smooth doing. Not trying to attach this ridiculous base to this ridiculous anchor in a hole in the ground.

When Pillar finally did get the base attached, everyone could have a good laugh about it. Hernan Perez is having a grand old time; he wasn’t involved in the play, but how could you not laugh at what just happened? Sure, he and Pillar are technically on different teams, but when weird stuff happens, they’re just two kids out there playing a game:

There’s something subtly awesome in that conversation. Take a look at Pillar’s feet as he chats with Perez. He has both feet firmly on the bag. That squirrelly thing disappeared on him before, and he’s not about to let it happen again. Perez is almost certainly joking about what just happened, and Pillar is almost certainly agreeing with him. Subconsciously, though, he’s stating his case. This is my base. I was safe — safe the whole time.

I wish I could say that the nonsense continued, that Pillar slid into third and an elephant appeared out of nowhere to block the way, or something equally ridiculous. Heck, I’d settle for another pickoff attempt, or a steal. Instead, 2019 baseball being what it is, Yastrzemski hit a home run off of Claudio four pitches later. On another night, that would have been a notable enough moment. Mike Yastrzemski, a 28-year-old left-handed rookie, hit a high-leverage home run off of a pitcher whose job is to not let lefties hit home runs. It ended up being the winning margin of the game. Normally, that’s a notable play. On Friday night, it wasn’t even the most notable moment of Yastrzemski’s at-bat.

I follow baseball for the statistics. I write for FanGraphs, after all. The mathematical side of the game intrigues me. Still, when I watch a game, I’m not only looking for a pitcher with a good FIP, or for an exciting exit velocity reading. I want something wild to happen, preferably in a light-hearted fashion, and Friday’s Brewers-Giants game delivered. Kevin Pillar’s right foot and a loosely attached base turned a bunch of big leaguers into kids playing a ridiculous game, and I, for one, loved it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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